Magnus Carlsen: How Intuition and AI Shape the Best Chess Player in the World

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Magnus Carlsen, the highest-rated chess player, leverages AI tools, specifically chess engines like Leela and Stockfish, for training. However, his human intuition and unpredictability remain critical in the game. His coach, Peter Heine Nielsen, emphasizes that while AI's insights are utilized, it's the human "edge concepts" that often decide games.

The world of chess has been a fascinating arena where artificial intelligence (AI) and human intellect have been clashing for decades. As the highest-rated human ever, Magnus Carlsen is the best chess player in the world. With his highest Elo rating (a measure of chess proficiency) being 2,882, he stands at the top of this intricate game.

I recently had the privilege of speaking with his coach, Peter Heine Nielsen, who shared invaluable insights about the evolving dynamic between AI and human intuition in the realm of chess.

Ever since their introduction in the mid-1980s, chess engines have seen a rapid increase in their abilities. Their Elo rating has soared from around 2,000 in the mid-80s (a proficiency level somewhere between an intermediate and expert human player) to 3,610 by 2023. This Elo rating is far beyond the reach of any human player, including Carlsen.

Source: Our World in Data

Nielsen, as the coach of the best chess player in the world, bears witness to this transformation. He says:

“The days when humans, even Magnus, could compete with a computer have long passed.”

But that doesn’t mean that humans have been entirely checkmated.

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Best Chess Player in the World: Navigating AI and Intuition

“Computers are tools we all have available. We do not compete with them,” says Nielsen. Therefore, AI is used to help train players and analyze the game.

However, Nielsen reveals an interesting twist: the enduring worth of human intuition and unpredictability. These traits are key in a game increasingly dominated by machine precision.

“Chess is a game between two humans, a game of errors under pressure. Magnus might feel a move gives him the best chances, puts his opponent under awkward pressure, even if the computer might discard it.”

Ultimately, the best chess players in the world, like Carlsen, search for “edge concepts” – moves that might be moderately discarded by a chess engine but put an unsuspecting opponent under pressure.

“The computer, calculating billions of moves and not being affected by nerves, could find the right counter-sequence, while a human opponent might not.”

Therefore, the goal isn’t to outwit the machine; it’s to embrace human unpredictability.

 “Modern chess is like this: If we all follow what the computer tells us in analysis, we both have the same source, the same ideas, and the game will be a draw. So we try looking for on-the-edge concepts…That’s chess. That’s sport.”

Nielsen’s insights underline the complex dance of man and machine at the top levels of chess. The rise of computer chess strength has grown, underscored by the dramatic increase in Elo ratings.

And yet, chess is ultimately a human sport – which is why intuition, unpredictability, and the potential for error still matter.

Delving into the Tools of the Best Chess Player in the World

This human factor isn’t about ignoring AI’s insights. In fact, a crucial part of Nielsen’s role as a chess coach involves in-depth computer analysis.

“Basically, everything I do is computer analysis. I pit different computer programs against each other, see where their opinions differ, and try to learn.”

This approach, particularly for opening strategies, is an integral aspect of his coaching work.

Ahead of any match, Nielsen provides Carlsen with a set of AI-generated concepts. Carlsen then evaluates these strategies and chooses which ones to use in his preparation.

Leela (Lc0) and Stockfish are the two major tools employed by Nielsen.

Leela

Lc0 0.29.0, or Leela, holds a distinctive position in the world of chess engines. According to the rating list published by the SSDF, as of May 2023, Leela (Lc0 0.29.0 Cuda-808544 3060Ti) is the current leader. It is also the first chess program to surpass the 3,600 Elo barrier.

The Swedish rating system is based on tournament-level conditions, which involve 40 moves in 2 hours, followed by 20 moves each subsequent hour.

Leela’s unprecedented 3,610 ranking is accompanied by a margin of error of -41 to 45, suggesting its actual rating could be anywhere between 3,569 (3,610 – 41) and 3,655 (3,610 + 45). Though this massive achievement is impressive, the need for more games to narrow the error bars is evident.

The software’s notable performance has been against opponents with an average Elo rating of 3,466, leading to a significant win ratio of 68%. Its standing as the top-rated engine on the SSDF list illustrates Leela’s substantial capabilities and influence in the chess world.

The anticipation grows to see how the chess engine will fare as it continues to play against top-tier programs, a crucial factor in its contribution to the best chess player in the world’s performance.

Stockfish

Stockfish, a powerful and freely available software, is another staple in the preparation of the best chess player in the world.

According to the rating list published by the SSDF, as of May 2023, Stockfish (Stockfish 15 x64 1800X 3.6 GHz) ranked fourth among all tested chess engines. However, June 2023 saw the release of Stockfish 16, which has not been ranked yet.

Stockfish 15 has played a total of 367 games, managing a winning ratio of 66%. Its average opponent rating stands at an Elo of 3,456. The program has an average Elo rating of 3570, accompanied by a margin of error of -36 to 39. This suggests its actual rating could be anywhere between 3,534 (3570 – 36) and 3,609 (3570 + 39).

Still, this Elo rating is impressive and puts it in the global top four, demonstrating its robust capabilities in the realm of chess.

The Bottom Line

In the intricate world of chess, the mix of human insight and AI exactness forms a captivating dynamic. The best chess player in the world, Magnus Carlsen, embodies this dynamic via his reliance on the insights of chess engines like Leela and Stockfish.

However, Carlsen’s human intuition and unpredictability continue to play a crucial role. This blend of human genius and machine accuracy is the hallmark of modern chess. Carlsen embraces the insights offered by AI while also exploring uniquely human “edge concepts”.

While chess engines continue to achieve unprecedented ratings, the game is still about the remarkable potential of the human mind.

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Maria Webb
Technology Journalist
Maria Webb
Technology Journalist

Maria is a technology journalist with over five years of experience with a deep interest in AI and machine learning. She excels in data-driven journalism, making complex topics both accessible and engaging for her audience. Her work is prominently featured on Techopedia, Business2Community, and Eurostat, where she provides creative technical writing. She holds a Bachelor of Arts Honours in English and a Master of Science in Strategic Management and Digital Marketing from the University of Malta. Maria's background includes journalism for Newsbook.com.mt, covering a range of topics from local events to international tech trends.